If there were a bridge from Haiti to Miami at that time, I am convinced there would be no one left in Haiti.Hugues BastienFounderInstitution Univers
The year was 1991, and just months after swearing in its first-ever democratically elected government, Haiti suffered a serious setback. Hopes for a brighter future were quashed by a brutal military coup. Human rights abuses and destitute poverty drove Haitians to risk their lives fleeing the country.
Boats arrived en masse on the coast of Florida (boats may be a generous term – picture shoddy rafts) carrying desperate Haitians who braved the tempestuous waters in hopes of escaping violence, chaos and upheaval in their home country.
But at this very moment in time—one when most Haitians would have given anything for the opportunity to come to the United States, Hugues Bastien sought to return to his homeland.
Born in Ouanaminthe, Hugues Bastien witnessed the realities of poverty and harsh living conditions first-hand. His parents and grandparents struggled to make ends meet, to feed him and his twelve siblings. A piece of bread, a boiled egg…these were the simple pleasures of his childhood.
However, the trajectory of Hugues’ life took a different course when he was given the opportunity to be educated in the U.S., earning his college degree and making a life for himself in New York City.
“It is because of that education that I am here today,” he explains.
When Hugues decided to return to Haiti, others questioned this decision. “Why would you want to give up so much here to go to a country where no one wants to live?” they asked.
There were no jobs – 90 percent unemployment – so people were begging to survive. And that is what I was coming back to.
The Brutal Backstory
Haiti’s history of hardship dates back far earlier than the military coup in 1991. Rewind nearly 500 years to when Christopher Columbus first landed in Haiti and claimed the territory for Spain, subsequently ceding it to France over a century later.
With colonization came the slave trade—a system of exploitation, abuse and horrific injustice that would set a tragic course for the country’s future. Under French colonial rule, Haiti accounted for one-third of the Atlantic slave trade, with nearly 800,000 slaves arriving from Africa.1 The conditions for slaves were unconscionable.
Haiti eventually became the first country to successfully lead a slave rebellion, throwing off colonial rule and gaining independence in 1804. However, this victory came at great cost. Guerrilla-style fighting destroyed the country’s infrastructure and most of its plantations, and Haiti was then levied with astronomical reparations to France, which would set the country on a course towards poverty, debt, economic dependence, corruption and mismanagement.
Today, the country is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. The unemployment rate is astronomical (40 percent), and nearly two-thirds of the population (60 percent) lives under the national poverty line of $2.42 (US dollars) per day.2
With this backdrop, Haiti became even more vulnerable to its other great disadvantage – geography. Located on the major fault line between North American and Carribean tectonic plates, Haiti has suffered disastrous earthquakes. In 2010, more than 200,000 people died in the wake of an earthquake registering a magnitude of 7.0.3
Deforestation has further contributed to the country’s susceptibility to natural disaster, worsening the impact of storms in the region. In 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007, the country suffered massive flooding.4 The island is situated in the path of the region’s main hurricane track. In 2008, four different storms—by the names of Fay, Gustav, Hannah and Ike—devastated the country, killing 800 peoples and damaging over 70 percent of Haiti’s farmland.5
“In Haiti, the last five centuries have combined to produce a people so poor, an infrastructure so nonexistent and a state so hopelessly ineffectual that whatever natural disaster chooses to strike next, its impact on the population will be magnified many, many times over. Every single factor that international experts look for when trying to measure a nation's vulnerability to natural disasters is, in Haiti, at the very top of the scale. Countries, when it comes to dealing with disaster, do not get worse.”
- Haiti: A Long Descent to Hell, The Guardian
Donations and international aid have flowed into the country, but very little has been directed through Haitian organizations and did little to set the country on a different course.6 Haiti continues to be plagued by poverty, high unemployment rates, inadequate infrastructure, corruption and instability.
This is the context into which Haitians are born today.
Hugues knows this context well, and upon returning to Haiti, he quickly realized that challenges of such magnitude demand a response of equal depth. There could be no band-aid solutions; change would only come through a long-term investment in Haiti’s greatest asset: its children.
And so, Hugues set out to unearth seeds of hope in the form of a new generation of leaders. What would those leaders look like? 3-5 year olds.
Most people out of the country donating to Haiti just keep feeding us instead of helping or showing us how to build infrastructure that can help us produce what we need. Haiti needs people or businesses to come and invest in things we need, not useless things that will make them become richer.Hantze Jerry PierreGraduate 2009Institute Univers
The Answer Within
In Haiti, the public school system has been woefully neglected. Teachers lack adequate training; funding and infrastructure are minimal; and it is not unusual to find classes comprised of 100 students or more.
Almost 80 percent of teachers have not received any pre-service training. (USAID 2015)
Qualified teachers, smaller class-sizes and books for each student in every class – these may seem like common educational practices, but in Haiti, they are not… nor is school attendance. According to the World Bank, more than 200,000 children in Haiti lack access to primary education, with other estimates ranging even higher.7
It was clear to Hugues that education must be the foundation for social change in Haiti, so, in 1994, he founded Institution Univers (IU). Partnering with fellow Haitians Jaccin Bernard and Joe Dumay, the three set out to change the future of their country from the inside out.
“We will start with three year olds and teach them to believe that things can be better,” they said.
That first year, there were 84 fee-paying students. But Hugues soon discovered that parents could not afford to pay the fees necessary to offset the costs of providing students with a quality education. Yet without finances, he could not pay qualified teachers.
At this point, others might have opted to close the school down, but not Hugues. The entrepreneurial Haitian returned to the U.S. and trained as a taxi-driver to raise the money to keep classes functioning, while also creating a structure for financial support to sustain the school and make education affordable.
Families now pay approximately one third of operating costs in tuition and fees, while the school covers the other two-thirds through donations. This structure allows the school to make education affordable for more students, but also maintain its mission of providing excellence in education.
What started as a one-room school house of 84 students in 1994 has since grown into a campus of multiple buildings employing over 150 local professionals and support personnel, educating 2,400 students in pre-school through grade 13 and ranking as one of the top ten schools in Haiti.
By providing quality education, employing caring and qualified faculty and staff, developing character and cultivating Christian faith, IU believes it is possible to change the future of an entire nation.
IU is unique in that it offers a much better opportunity to its students, and it’s changing a generation of Haitians, building a new future for the country.Emmanuel JosephGraduateInstitute Univers
Haitians Serving Haitians
“I wake up at 5am, and get ready to go to work. Before I go, I make sure my daughter is ready to go to school... I don’t want my children to be raised like I was. I work so they can have a good living and a good education. I am fighting so that my daughter can make something of her life tomorrow and in the years to come.”
Jacques is a local resident of Ouanaminthe and a father who would do anything to provide a better future for his children. His daughter attends Institution Univers. He leaves early in the morning, long before his daughter leaves for school and works long hours to make enough money to pay for his children’s education and put food on the table. But even still, it is not always sufficient for three meals a day.
His story is not an unusual one, which means many children are lucky to have one meal a day. “We found that the kids would come to school early in the morning with nothing to eat, and they would go home and find nothing to eat,” explains Hugues.
The school responded by launching a meals program. “It changed the dynamic with the kids and their ability to learn,” says former President Tony Iannetta. Kids were no longer falling asleep during class. They were alert and engaged, and the change was dramatic.
Every day Institution Univers provides food for approximately 3,000 students and staff.
But with the introduction of a meals program came the need for healthy and nutritious food. In typical entrepreneurial fashion, Hugues responded with action and began cultivating crops on his own land—coconut, mango, lime, lemon, orange, cashew, papaya, plantain and banana trees, plus peanut, potato, sweet potato, pineapple and okra plants. Employing community neighbors to care for the farm, IU began harvesting healthy fruits and vegetables for school lunches, while also teaching responsible farming practices.
The school also partnered with a bakery-owner from Ohio to launch Bread4Haiti, a bakery that now provides fresh bread for students and staff on a daily basis.
Hughes recalls a time when there was only one doctor for the entire community. “People were dying, literally, for lack of medical care. Ladies who are pregnant, there was no gynecologist for them to be taken care of, and they end up losing the babies and losing their lives.”
So in 2014, Univers opened the doors to a walk-in medical clinic. This clinic was later converted into a full-time hospital, now providing emergency and primary care for over 35,000 patients each year.
All of these various initiatives—from farm to bakery to medical center—serve another very important purpose: Creating jobs. As Institution Univers continues to successfully educate a new generation of Haitians, the need for economic opportunity after graduation has become more evident. The goal is to provide 250 jobs and 30 management-level positions in the Oauanaminthe area by 2020.
The Univers approach could easily be described as this: find a need and meet it. When children are hungry, feed them. When graduates need jobs, create them. When the school needs revenue, find ways to produce it. When children or their families need medical care, provide it.
We want to make Ouanaminthe a place where people want to live—a place people don't want to leave.
Raising a Future Generation
In 2009, the school held its first high school graduation with fifteen students completing the 13th grade (Haiti follows the French system of 13 grades). Many of these graduates have since returned to Univers to serve on staff.
“We saw that those kids would be the future of this community, the future of this country, and then we look for opportunities to see how once they finish high school here, how can they go beyond high school and how can they go to college?” Hugues explains.
IU helps students to be able to go beyond a high school education—post-secondary, apprenticeship, internship, college/university-level education—so that they can come back and serve their community.
Hantze, Marie Claire, Emmanuel and the other graduates of IU are the keystone of the Univers model. They are the future—the catalysts for change.
“My return to Haiti has been full of hope and frustration, full of questions and wonder, full of excitement and prayers… [God] has done beautiful things in my life, and I am certain that He will use me to do beautiful things in others’ lives as well.”
– Marie Claire Charles, IU graduate 2009
The challenges in Haiti are many and complex. Tackling issues of poverty, unemployment, environmental degradation, inadequate infrastructure, political instability, and vulnerability to natural disaster is a daunting task, to say the least. There is no single solution for any of these issues.
However, Univers believes that by empowering the Haitian people with knowledge, skills, faith and hope, they can raise up leaders to take on these problems and become the solution.
Often people say hope FOR Haiti, but we see there is hope IN Haiti…not FOR, but IN.Tony IannettaFormer PresidentCOCINA
3,4,5,6 Why Is Haiti Vulernable to Natural Hazards and Disasters? The Guardian. October 2016.
7 Four things you should know about education in Haiti. World Bank.
First, THANK YOU to the several hundred readers and Univers supporters who voted to make this story our 2017 Reader's Choice! With a courageous visionary facing all the odds, a story of hope-building in a country devastated by poverty and natural disasters is tremendously inspiring. I count it a real privilege to publish this story—thank you all for sending it our way.
Second, THANK YOU to the Cocina/Univers staff who extended themselves graciously and kindly to help get us everything we needed—answering many questions and helping us coordinate travel a couple times over, with many complications (like Irma) making it difficult. Also, special thanks to Grant Knisely for contributing film and photography!
The future of Haiti belongs to the three year olds—let's send hope and support their way as they rebuild a country.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly